The Meaning of the Meaning of Life

Saturday October 14, 2006

It’s a tall order, but at the moment I’m teaching a philosophy course at Staffordshire University on the meaning of life. I’ve been given free rein to teach the course how I like, so I tore up the course I had been given (a horrible stodgy trek through the gloomiest areas of Western philosophy – all misery, suffering, futility and absurdity) and rewrote it from scratch. The new course starts with the Greeks – Plato and Aristotle, at least – and follows a number of strands of the Western tradition down the the present, to see why it is that we ask the kinds of questions we do about life, meaning and value.

This is, I think, one of the great things about studying the Western philosophical tradition: that even if we have never picked up Plato or Aristotle, we are their heirs nonetheless, and looking at this tradition can cause us to ask why it is that we think the way that we do. Our thoughts, even those that are seem most intimate and private to us, those thoughts that we regard as “our own”, are always conditioned – by innumerable factors, of course, but also significantly conditioned by the history and traditions of thought of which we are a part.

Anyway, so far the course is going well and I’m enjoying teaching it; but behind the whole thing something is gnawing away at me: the thought that when we are asking about the meaning of life, I’m not really sure what it is we are asking. I don’t think that I really understand the question, “What is the meaning of life?” So one thing I’ve been asking my students, and asking myself, is “What is the meaning of the ‘meaning of life?’” The more I think about this, the more I realise that although once I used to wonder a great deal about the meaning of life, these days I really don’t very much at all. I’m interested in life, I’m interested in how things happen, I’m interested in the world and in what it is that is going on, but I don’t think much about the meaning of life.

Of course, there may be things that are meaningful, in a very ordinary sense, within life. The words I am writing mean something. Bodhicattva, the thinkBuddha cat, has a number of meows, and it is possible to distinguish between “I’m wet!”, “I’m hungry!” and “Hello!” as having distinct meanings (at least, in the eyes of this sentimental cat-owner!). But at the same time, you can’t really add up all these meanings (and, of course, the meaning of “meaning” is slippery anyway) to get to some kind of meaning of life.

Whilst thinking about this I hit on an analogy that has some mileage, although I’m not sure about its limits. The analogy is this: that to ask about the meaning of life is like asking about the colour of life. The question simply makes no sense. Life is full of colour, but no one colour belongs to life itself. Life, full of colour, has no colour.

The analogy is also useful in another way, because our colour perception it is the product of a huge set of conditions – our own receptivity to a particular band in the electromagnetic spectrum, our own biological constitution, our own cultural ways of dividing up the visible spectrum, and so on. As Varela et. al. say in their book ,

Colour categorisation in its entirety depends upon a tangled hierarchy of perceptual and cognitive processes, some species specific and others culture specific… colour categories are not to be found in some pregiven world that is independent of our perceptual and cognitive capacities… [they] are experiential, consensual, and embodied. (p. 171)

The more I think about the strangeness of the question “What is the meaning of life?” the more I wonder if it is really useful. I can recollect the nagging anxiety I had when I used to believe that life had a meaning, a meaning into which I had not yet been (although I hoped to be at some time in the future) initiated. The restless search for the meaning of life is incredibly painful. Even worse, I suspect, is the zealous fervour of conviction that comes with believing that you do know the meaning of life. It’s possible, however, to give up on the meaning of life. This giving up on the idea that life has a meaning is not surrendering to the belief that life is meaningless. It is something more fundamental: seeing into the weirdness of our desire to see life in terms of this polarity between meaningfulness and meaninglessness. Neither meaningful nor meaningless, life simply does what it does. When I think of this, I cannot help but feel the most incredible relief…

See the following article on Wikipedia.

# · Will

An imaginary conversation in cyberspace…

Visitor A: Oh look, there’s an onion on this blog post!
Visitor B: So there is. What do you think it means?
Visitor A: Perhaps he’s trying to say something about life being many layered.
Visitor B: Hmmm… Perhaps. It’s bit of a cliché though.
Visitor A: That’s never stopped him before.
Visitor B: True, but I’d see if differently. I think it’s something to do with tragedy of life. Doesn’t existence provokes tears, like an onion.
Visitor A: Who knows what it means?
Visitor B: Perhaps he simply was stuck for a picture, and liked the onion.
Visitor A: But it must mean something!
Visitor B: Must it? I think it’s completely meaningless.
Visitor C: Oh. and I thought it was an onion...


# · Angela-Eloise

Great, thought-provoking post! I’d love to see your class syllabus.

Your question of what is the meaning of the meaning of life is similar to the question we tackled in a philosophy of aesthetics course I took some years ago: What is art? The first thing that we have to admit is that it is impossible to answer that question, just as you’ve said about life’s meaning.

I like that you used the analogy of color in your discussion, because it comes very close to some of the thinking and writing I did on the subject of what art is. I wrote a paper that borrowed from John Dewey’s ideas about Art as Experience and from Nelson Goodman’s symbol theory, which drew the simple conclusion that our experience of art (and anything else in life) is entirely dependent upon the systems of understanding and interpreting our world that we have at our disposal. While a scientist may look at a painting and think about the chemical composition of paint or how closely an abstract resembles the diagramatic representation of a particular molecular structure, a sailor may look at the same painting and equate what he sees to waves on the sea, the charts that he uses to navigate his way, and how he can tell what kind of fish he’s caught in his net.

My point is that everything we learn and everything we experience adds to the “vocabulary” of symbolism that we use to interpret our world and our life. As you said, “our colour perception … is the product of a huge set of conditions.” So too, is our experience of life the product of a huge set of conditions. The meaning that it has for one person is entirely different from the meaning it has for another.

There is a theory that states that the human desire to find a greater meaning is, biologically speaking, our greatest weakness. That while, on one hand our ability to reason elevates homo sapiens above other animals on the evolutionary scale, at the same time it is our undoing because we spend lifetimes trying to answer questions for which there are no answers. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? What is art? What is love?

I’m not saying that I espouse the theory but it does bring us to another question: why is finding the answers to these questions so important to us?

# · Pamela

I love the color analogy and appreciate being reminded of how much we create our perception of the world. How what we take for granted, such as the colors we see, are not a fixed reality but dependent on multiple factors that vary from person-to-person and culture-to-culture.

I find meaning making to be a valuable characteristic of humans, as long as we use it mindfully. Truly isn’t it what allows us to transcend moments beyond what we are able through instinct and physical abilities?

# · Tom

I am troubled, Will, that you have come up with an answer to your quest[ion]: “Neither meaningful nor meaningless, life simply does what it does.”

Now you can give up philosophy [and this blog?] and become an auto mechanic or a chef. A chef. Maybe that’s why the onion is there.

Is it the banner that moves or the wind that moves when the banner is seen flapping on a pole?

# · Will

Thanks for the reference to John Dewey’s stuff on art, Angela-Eloise. You are the second person to point me this way in the last 12 months, both in different contexts. I’ll root out a bit of Dewey and have a look.

I agree about meaning being important in human terms, Pamela, and about developing a kind of mindfulness in relation to it (although I’m still not quite sure what “meaning” means...)

Finally, I’m not sure that this is an answer to the question, Tom, so much as a turning away from a question based on what seem to be mistaken premises, rendering it thus unanswerable. There’s a good tradition of this kind of thing: see the link here –

So even after throwing out the question of the meaning of life, life continues to present questions, many of which are much more intriguing and which often seem to be more fruitful from a practical perspective. So – for better or worse – there’s no immediate sign of me giving up philosophy just yet. But you wouldn’t want me trying to fix your car…

Will :-)

# · Pamela

Had I been a student in your class, I would have been sure to address the key question ;)

I have never really paid much attention to the “meaning of life” and I guess that is because it doesn’t have much meaning for me. Particularly as an ultimate truth, a fixed thing that can be found. I see all meaning as a process, constantly changing. I should clarify my earlier statement limiting meaning making to humans, while humans seem to have the fullest expression of this ability, I would not go so far as to say that it is the only expression.

# · Garnet David

Hello, Will. First time commenting here, though I’ve read you a bit. I am a seeker, fascinated by process and understanding. I seek the meaning of the meaning of life, with the understanding that it’s a process not a goal. “Poetic” thinking allows freedom from meaning to make connections with meaning through other channels of feeling and understanding. To me, the meaning (or purpose, if I may bend that way some) of life it to give it meaning by the way we live, act, speak, create. I think most humans need or want some kind of big picture in which to fit, like your cat wants a nice warm bed in which to cuddle.

Good, clean site, designwise. And your writing style is accessible and thought provoking. I enjoyed the reference to your cat!

Your commenters are also an impressive and thoughtful bunch.

Glad I found you.

# · beepbeepitsme

The Answer Is X

# · imeanlife

According to a statistics, there are 430 million English speaking internet users. Are they enough to answer the biggest question? What would happen if all of them visited this website and wrote a sentence? Would we find the ultimate answer? I don’t think so, but who knows…

Our only goal is to collect as many of these sentences as possible.

What about you? Have you ever thought about the reason of life? Do you have a minute to do that now?

We just need a sentence! It can be funny or serious, happy or sad, philosophical or casual. It can be your own thought or a quote from your favourite writer or just from the grocer around the corner.

It has to meet just one requirement! It should be one of the endless possible answers to the question:


# · MhM

Dear all,

Yesterday night I was unable to sleep. Probably because I had too much coffee or because I slept the whole day so my sleep deficiency was over compensated. Adding to the insomnia, as I lay limp on the bed the question about “purpose and meaning of life” started to puzzle my mind.

If I could answer the question that “What GOD expects from us?” it seemed that probably the same shall be answer to my original question regarding “purpose and meaning of life”. (Please read on even if you call GOD by any other name or even if you don’t believe in GOD)

Being an engineering student I needed a model with which I could work. So firstly I needed to define God. (I am in no way implying that it is possible to define GOD. We just need to model that can help us in our enquiry). The most suitable answer that appeared to my mind was: He is combined consciousness of all living and non-living beings. Read the last sentence again if you couldn’t appreciate it the first time.

Assuming that you can appreciate the above model, we have to firstly find something/somebody that is combined consciousness of a lot of living being and secondly find out what he/she expects from those living being that are its constituent. For the answer to first question we don’t have to look too far. From our basic knowledge of Biology we know that we consist of billions of cell and thus you and I are combined consciousness of these cells. In fact any multicellular living being is combined consciousness of its cells.
Now the second question is quite tricky. Because it says “What do you Expects from your cells” or let me rephrase it “What does any multicellular organism expect from EVERY SINGLE ONE of its cells?”. I think you may agree with me on below expectations if you consider that we are discussing about individual cells not the organ they form. So I came to following purposes:

1) Every cell must do its work/duty.

2) The cell should help other in the organ to do their work and so that organ as a whole can do its work better in the system, so that multicellular organism can survive.

3) It should evolve and help multicellular organism evolve

I think we can’t ask anything more from the poor cell. Please try to appreciate that other expectations like faster recovery from injury, improving multicellular organisms’ chances of reproduction and even supernatural powers are covered in above.

Hence, above three shall be GOD’s expectations from us and thus by implication our purpose.

Now, let’s look at the first Requirement ie “Every cell (Person) must do its work/duty”. At this point my friend Gogia might say that whatever is his duty or work is, IS his purpose and finding that out is the main question. Firstly and most importantly, at this point I would like you to appreciate that the first requirement is not the ONLY requirement and also according to me the requirement that requires least focus and energy. I would like to take an example of my kidney cell. I don’t have to tell it time and again that he needs to purify my blood neither It has to discover it. It’s something that comes to it naturally and dose automatically. So what is your work/duty? If answering that is difficult try to answer “What you do automatically” it might not be something that is considered most praiseworthy by the society or might be something that “Protectors” of our society may say to be the only thing a man should do. And moreover if you can’t find the answer right away don’t even bother because whatever you are doing in your life IS your work/duty. In a moment I will tell why? For now just remember that work of my college genitor is his work, whatever a mother of newly born child do is her work, similarly for the butcher, the thief and even Einstein and of course how can I forget my friend Gogia. Also, GOD have preprogrammed your default (read initial default) work into you.

Your next requirement is to help those in the same organ to do their work/duty so that the “multicellular organism” can survive. By organ, it can mean those in the same commercial organization, same field or living in same locality or even country. By help I don’t mean you do their work but creating the situation where others can do their work/duty. This might take form of showing somebody in your office how to do certain work, by giving materialistic support to a person who is in need of it (at the same time ensuring that he becomes self-sufficient) etc. At this point I would like you to highlight that DON’T spend all your energy at this expectation also because there is a way to go.

Gogia may again that a thief may have negative effect on the society and thus the multicellular organism. I may say “Please don’t judge Leon when it kills”; thieves’ work/duty is to do whatever they do, but societies work/task is to punish them (as it comes naturally to society). Who is to say what is right and what is wrong.

And finally we come to the last and ,according to me, the most important requirement: the evolution. By evolution I mean improvement of cell and thus the organ and thus the multicellular organism. Improvement can be learning better way to do the work, FINDING new and better way to do the work and CHANGING your task to suit newly acquired understanding/skills. Now as you can see that this is the task that requires most energy (you know learning isn’t easy) and demands most creativity from our side. And thus your Requirement 1 and 2 get upgraded again. I would like you to appreciate that: Any GREAT man becomes great when he has evolve but in most of the cases he stops becoming Greater when he doesn’t take care of this (most important requirement). And you will also appreciate that as “you can always change your work” you need not worry about the initial choice you make. Just make a choice and always fulfill the three requirement. And most importantly keep evolving and enjoy the change.

Lastly, the most important question according to Einstein was “Why did GOD created the universe?” . Probably for the same three reasons.


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